Ethiopia’s claim to fame as one of the only two African nations (Liberia being the other) that were never colonized by a European power is only challenged by one small period: the Italian occupation. The Italian influence on Ethiopia is profound—from injera with spaghetti to winding cobblestone streets and Etruscan architecture—but Ethiopians were drinking wine long before Italians ever set foot there. That wine was t’ej.
T’ej is a mead—honey wine—that reflects less of the land and more of the maker. Each batch, the result of fermenting honey and water with gesho leaves (shiny-leaf buckthorn, a relative of hops), is variably alcoholic, ranging from 10 to 40 percent, depending on the length of fermentation.
The immediate sweetness (it is honey wine, after all) on your palate may be the only unifying thread across all of t’ej, because what follows is best described as the “t’ej maker’s touch.” Some t’ej is so funky that it would send self-professed lovers of “natural wine” quivering in a corner. Other brews are so smooth and balanced that you’re transported to another time and place entirely.
Served chilled in long-necked bottles known as bereles, t’ej is the perfect complement to Ethiopian cuisine. The rich spices and heat of the dishes is cut by the wine’s cool sweetness, which also complements and deepens the sour funk of injera.
Need to Know
Buyer beware: The buzz might be a bit bigger than you bargained for.